Slayer - Reign In Blood - Review
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critics' view

One of the few things I don’t think gets said a lot about Reign in Blood and, even after its release some thirty-two years ago, is its finesse. I mean, what with all the talk of its supreme extremity another point that’s certainly worthy of note is how it upped the game in terms of what could be achieved in terms of professionalism and applying that trait to austere, menacing brutality. Simply put, if Pleasure to Kill is a sixteen-year-old running rampant with a kitchen knife in ALDI, then Reign in Blood, in terms of extended metaphor and murder, is the SS or the NKVD; callous, malicious and even more harrowing due to its cold efficiency.

The first two Slayer albums – obviously eternal classics – were still embiggened with the spectre of 80’s excess. This was not a fault (far from it!); glorious twin-leads, evil outbreaks of Venom-esque metal on Show No Mercy and an accidental discovery of death metal on Hell Awaits will always be the stuff of legend. Here, however, Slayer managed to rein (ha!) in that excess to create Slayer through a hardcore lens. Hell, while we can continue comparing this to Darkness Descends and Seven Churches (with the obvious caveat that Dark Angel were never even fit to polish Slayer’s oversized spikey armbands) and start talking more about Age of Quarrel and Minor Threat.

However, while that hardcore edge permeates this album, it is really just as Mercyful Fate as it is Minor Threat. While Jeff Hanneman and Dave Lombardo were responsible for the punk-ish sound here, it is clear that Kerry King was still a metal kid. ‘Altar of Sacrifice’ is his crowning glory as a songwriter and an incredibly important part of Reign in Blood’s glory. It answers the question: “How would Mercyful Fate’s ‘Gypsy’ and Show No Mercy riffs sound if they were played with RiB impossible brutality?” The next time someone calls him a tribal tattoo-sporting baldy, remind them of his former glory and perhaps they’ll reconsider.

Of course, if that is King’s crowning moment then ‘Angel of Death’ is Jeff Hanneman’s most important track. Not only is it just as frightening as it was when I first heard it some fifteen years ago, it’s lyrically quite unlike anything else in the metal canon. The riffs and drums are, of course, veritable hellstorms – set to crush the earth, but the lyrics are just unusual. Obviously, anyone with a reading age over seven could recognise that this is not a song venerating the holocaust, and yet, unlike every other thrash song on the topic, it does not need to assert a moralising message. The depiction itself is horrid enough. Jeff Hanneman was just so far beyond any other thrash songwriter of his time. Compare him to Scott Ian and it’s like putting Nathaniel Hawthorne’s petty Christian allegory up against Edgar Allan Poe’s unrestrained gothic. ‘Angel of Death’ still reigns supreme and goes to show Slayer’s uncanny finesse. Hanneman’s writing manages to convey – through music – the worst horrors mankind inflicted on each other and, for that alone, it’s easy to see why he’s still a controversial figure. Again, whereas Hell Awaits might have reeked of teenage thesaurus abuse, here the writing is controlled and really without parallel. The slightly goofy descriptions are gone – isn’t ‘Captor of Sin’ about eating a dodgy curry? – and replaced with metal’s ultimate expression of the macabre.

Of course, this is also Araya’s pinnacle; he maintains all the right aggression and yet is still incredibly articulate. Any death metal style cover of these songs would certainly lack Araya’s incredible diction and stress. He makes every fucking syllable matter and, given how important the lyrics are here, he paints each song with subtle hues of red and grey. Simply put: he’s perfect.

Lombardo was, and probably still is, the finest musician to grace a thrash metal album. His drumming is simultaneously austere and yet strangely complex. Like Bill Ward before him, he orchestrates these songs; driving exactly when he should and laying slightly behind whenever these songs need to breathe. It won’t be described as technical because he’s just too damn good for that, his work however is a veritable master-class delivered with bone-crushing precision. Generally, he gets compared to fast drummers who have perhaps exceeded him in terms of speed (Pete Sandoval might be one, but he really lacks Lombardo’s inventiveness and panache when it comes to cymbal and tom work). Again, there was really no equivalent to this still of drumming in 1986; Gene Hoglan sounds like a dog chasing a stick in comparison.

Man, what’s with that vile-hearted laughter on ‘Criminally Insane’? I’d never really heard it before. I think that’s indicative of the record as a whole, really. Even after all these years, it’s still surprising in its absolute darkness and horror. If you find some quarrelsome points with this record, I can only say your musical education is vastly different from mine.

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